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Underage sexting isn’t ruining lives, draconian laws are (and we need to change them)

This year, a 17-year-old boy was charged with “manufacturing and distributing child pornography” by the Manassas City Police in Virginia. His crime? Sending a video text of his adolescent junk to his girlfriend. The Washington Post reports that he now faces two felony charges, may end up behind bars until he’s 21, and could be on the state sex offender database for the rest of his life.

The problem here isn’t a teenager’s hormones and bad decision making, it’s overzealous laws that penalize petty mistakes in ways that could haunt kids for life.

This police department is charging the teenager for “possession of child pornography and manufacturing of child pornography” when that pornography is of himself, and he created it using his own phone to privately send to his girlfriend. Even if he didn’t send the photo, the half-second act of taking a photo of himself in any way deemed sexually explicit constitutes the manufacture of child pornography in Virginia, a state that seems to pride itself on being the “toughest on pedophiles,” according to Fairfax, VA, Criminal Defense Attorney Luke Nichols in a post on Avvo.

There are real maniacs and molesters out there; we should arrest them and leave all the dumb teenagers alone.

Virginia’s child-porn laws are crazier than you might think. If a teenager so much as attempts to take an inappropriate photo of a minor, or someone else believes he or she is (pretending to take a photo up a girl’s skirt, for example, or of a guy’s ass as a joke in the locker room), that person can become a felon. It only depends who finds out and how it’s interpreted.

But wait, there’s more: Even if you’re a good kid, you can become a felon if you know the wrong people or are near the wrong phone. “Knowingly” taking part or participating in the creation of child pornography is also a felony. So if you let your friend borrow your phone, help him or her download pics, give “verbal encouragement,” or just happen to be nearby when the lewd act takes place, you could be labeled a part of the production of child pornography. Under Virginia’s laws, the victims of child pornography are going to jail for producing child pornography.

If you’re a Virginia teenager and you are concerned about a lump or anything in your sensitive regions, and you take a picture of yourself on a phone — which is the main way everyone in the world, sexual deviant or not, takes pictures of anything these days — you likely just created and are in possession of child pornography, and that’s a felony. Texting it to someone is copying or distributing it. That’s three felonies. Anyone who receives those texts is also in possession of child pornography and is committing a felony; it doesn’t matter if they download the images or not.

The laws are so screwed up in this state (and others in the United States) that police reportedly created child pornography to prove that the 17-year-old in question was the subject of child pornography. Police allegedly took photos of his genitalia against his will after arresting him, and threatened to get a search warrant so they could chemically induce his penis into an erect state and then photograph it. Sounds screwed up, right? It is. It’s like murdering someone to prove a murder, or robbing a bank to prove someone robbed a bank. If it’s OK for police to create digital child pornography, maybe they shouldn’t be snooping on a kid’s phone in the first place.

I do not endorse kids or teenagers taking sexually explicit pictures. They should be smart enough not to do this sort of thing, but kids are kids because they’re not adults yet; they’re still idiots and haven’t learned how to navigate the world well. Teenagers are at a point in their lives when sex and texting are both new, as is having a girlfriend or boyfriend. Adults tell teenagers to ignore their frisky impulses, but it’s a losing battle. Sense and logic can rarely compete with the typhoon of hormones that rage through the minds and bodies of a teen, screaming sexual thoughts at them between every moment of sanity.

Under 28 state laws, the victims of child pornography are going to jail for producing child pornography.

In Feb. 2014, Pew reported that in the 18- to 24-year-old age range, 44 percent of cell phone owners admit to receiving sexts, 15 percent admit to sending sexts with images, and 6 percent admit to forwarding them. Estimates have put the percentage of younger high school student that send sexts with images attached as low as 4 percent to as high as 28 percent, and most of this data is at least two years old; the newer the data, the more prevalent sexting appears to be. More teens are getting cell phones and using them to do what teens do: really dumb stuff.

The problem here are laws in states like Virginia, not teenagers like this poor young guy, who may go to jail and become a sex offender for the rest of his life. A search through the U.S. Sexting Laws and Regulations on Mobile Media Guard shows that 27 other states have similar laws: Alabama, Arkansas, Colorado, Delaware, Georgia, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Montana (up to 100 years in jail), New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Teneessee, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.

There is hope, though. There are laws (or proposed bills) in 22 states that reduce the crime of teens sexting one another to a misdemeanor or less. These states are: Arizona, Alaska, California, Connecticut, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas, Utah, and Vermont.

Florida, which got into some hot water with a sexting teen scandal a few years back, has one of the best laws. As of Oct. 1, 2011, Florida minors who sext lewd images have been charged with a non-criminal violation for their first offense, and a $60 fine or eight hours of community service. The teens must also attend classes on the dangers of sexting. Louisiana’s sexting law is more reasonable still, enforcing mandatory counseling, but no jail time.

Yes, laws are laws whether they’re right or wrong, but technology is evolving more rapidly than our rules. There are real maniacs and molesters out there doing horrible things to kids. There are still 45-year-old men with creepy mustaches and VHS recorders taping kids in the basement. Lets arrest them and leave all the dumb teenagers taking the wrong kind of selfies alone.

Child pornography laws were designed to protect children and teenagers under the age of consent (which varies by state) from being sexually assaulted, sexually abused, or sexually exploited. They’re designed to protect kids from mental and physical damage that will haunt them throughout life. Sexting from one idiot teen to another is not the danger these laws were meant to prevent. Here’s to hoping more states get on board with Florida, Louisiana, and the other 20 states that have reduced this from a felony that currently carries up to a lifetime of jail and a sex offender label to a misdemeaner or less.

Kids make mistakes. Let’s not ruin their lives for them.

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